LFO "Freak"
30 APRIL , 2005
WANG RUOLING


1. INTRODUCTION

LFO Freak, released on 30 August 2003, marked the return of LFO after a seven-year absence. This seven minute music video was produced by Warp Records, directed by Daviel Levi, and has won many awards: Best directorial debut in the 13th Annual MVPA Awards in 2004, Best New Director in 2004 Music Vision Awards, and also Best Dance Video in 2004 Music Vision Awards.

2. THE BAND

LFO is now made up of Mark Bell from Sheffield, Britain, after his partner Gez Varley went on a solo career. LFO’s music is centered on British experimental techno, and American hip-hop and electro-funk. Mark Bell and Gez Varley were discovered by Warp Records in the late 80’s, releasing their bass-heavy debut in 1991 to universal acclaim. After which unfortunately, the pair were silent for the next five years. LFO finally resurfaced in 1995 with 2 albums, but dissolved the partnership soon after. This album, Sheath, which was released in the fall of 2003, was LFO’s third full-length album.

3. THE PRODUCER

Daniel Levi has also produced music videos like Interpol Slow Hands, Massive Attack Butterfly Caught, and most recently, Prodigy’s Hot Ride. His other works include Autoglas Cracks Catch Up With You, Metro FM I Am Beat, Nike Body and X Box More.

4. DESCRIPTION OF MUSIC VIDEO

The music video begins at a scene in the playground within the barriers of the school compound. Some girls are happily playing with the skipping rope, and the roundabout. The girls are dressed in typical Asian-style school uniform. The color of the film is dim, with few colors, perhaps to set a morbid tone to the film. One can hear the merry sound of children playing in the playground. Four Chinese characters appear on the screen: ????. Translated literally, it says ‘Weird Shaped Person’, or in other words, ‘Freak’.

In the next scene, a pair of feet in white school shoes and blue high-stockings can be seen shuffling. One can hear the screech of a chair being dragged across a hallway. Shoes are frequently used throughout the video to depict emotions, and to give the audience a hint to the identity of the character. The background music is spooky, and there is the sound of dripping water. The floor in the hallway is so spotlessly clean that you can see the reflection of the chair on the floor. This is the typical setting of an Asian horror flick.

The following scene is in a toilet. It is dark, and there are scribbles on the wall. The camera zooms into one of the cubicles, where a pair of feet in stern, black court shoes can be seen from under the door. Her feet are neatly placed parallel to one another. It shows a woman’s calves, and her underwear hanging at her ankles. This gives the audience an impression of a stately lady. Then the camera moves up to show a woman in a neat gray jacket, her shoulders are huddled together in the middle, and her head droops to her chest. She is presumably the teacher, looking very resigned. The handle of on the toilet door turns and creaks, and the girl with the chair shuffles into the toilet. The teacher in the toilet looks puzzled, and starts calling out in Cantonese, a Chinese dialect, ‘Who is out there? Who is out there?’ The girl says nothing, as she props the chair against the cubicle that the teacher is in, such that the door of cubicle cannot open. The teacher continues calling out, as she pulls up her stockings and begins to look flustered. The schoolgirl then leaves the toilet. The teacher starts banging on the door and saying ‘Why are you locking me up? Let me out. Save me!’

In the next scene, the girl goes into a room. This is the first time that the camera shows the girl’s face. She looks like an ordinary Chinese schoolgirl, with long black hair and a straight fringe. This girl is one of the main characters in the video; she is easily identified with her small, puppy eyes. As she closes the door to the room, one can see the drawing of a teddy bear on her cuffs of her school uniform – a hint of rebellion against the strict old school setting. This looks like a Principal’s office, where there is a broadcaster. The girl takes out a cassette tape, and places it into a cassette player which is connected to the broadcaster. As she does this, we can see that she has a skull keychain dangling at her waist. This is the first hint that the innocent-looking schoolgirl is not as simple as she seems. She presses the ‘Play’ button, and the song begins very aptly, ‘this is going to make you freak’.

The scene switches back to the playground, where the schoolgirls were playing. The camera zooms into the girls playing with the skipping rope and some girls racing on the roundabout. One can see the individual faces on the girls now, they are happy and wild, and display some emotions. The girls are all dressed in the identical school uniforms, typical of the Asian education system. However, each girl adds a different touch to the uniform, like a jacket, or a striped shirt, that demonstrates individuality within the community. The only color that is seen on this video clip is shown only on these touches of individuality, such as a girl’s striped socks, or a detail on a shoe, or the stripes of a jacket.

Two girls start to dance in the middle of the playground, in wild, jerky motions. One of the girls has shoulder-length hair, is wearing a white school blouse, and has on a pair of motorbike gloves; the other girl is wearing a black sweater on top of pinafore. They swing their hands in all directions, and the video accelerates and decelerates, further distorting their body movements. There is a snapshot where one can see the smooth, but at times awkward, footwork of the dance. The pair of feet is dressed in white school shoes. More girls join in the wayward dance, flinging their arms and legs savagely about, and swinging their flock of thick black hair vigorously. Despite the gawkiness of the dance, the girls have wide smiles on their faces that show that they are having the time of their lives. There is a brief image of the Chinese flag flying in the playground. This could be seen as a sign of the strict Communist attitude that the school is about.

All motion freezes when the girls come into a V-shaped formation. They are standing in place, their heads hanging from the neck, limbs hanging loosely forward, and their flock of hair covering their faces. The image of the Chinese girls with their hair falling in front of their face stirs up the gory image of the popular Japanese horror film ‘The Ring’, where the female ghost climbs out of the television with her hair dripping wet in of her face.

The dance continues in the V-shaped formation, the girls take turns to dance in the V-shaped formation. The dance is the same head-banging, arms-swinging, hair-flinging motion, but there is now more focus on the vigorous hair-swinging. The dance is interrupted by flashes of morphed faces of the girls, which again adds the touch of individuality amongst the almost identical schoolgirls.

The story then continues. The girl with the small puppy eyes who had locked the teacher in the cubicle now dashes out from the main building to join the rest of the girls in the playground. There is a brief screenshot of the girl’s face, but unlike previously, her facial features are now distorted. The girls in the playground are now jumping and playing games with their hands in pairs.

The camera now alternates between the girls in the playground, and the teacher in the cubicle. The girls in the playground are now dancing around in a circle. They resume the head-banging dance, but now more intensely and aggressively. Brief images of the horribly morphed face of a girl, who can be identified by her thick eyebrows, flashes across the screen. The teacher in the cubicle is hammering furiously on the door. Her agony is represented by the image of her feet. When they were previously placed neatly parallel before, she is now standing uncomfortably out of place. She calls out for help. In the end, the teacher manages to squeeze her way out of the cubicle.

Two of the girls start fighting over a teddy bear. One of the two girls wins the teddy bear and jumps around triumphantly. The other girl then kicks her and snatches for the teddy bear. She gets the teddy bear, and then pushes the other girl off her feet. The girl falls dramatically. She is the girl with the thick eyebrows. Everyone else is in a neat circle, watching the fallen girl. The teacher sprints out of the toilet. Her strides are wide, and her hair is out of place.

The fallen girl moves jerkily on the floor, in some kind of rhythm. She looks like she is in pain, though she wears a smirk grin on her face. The other girls around her are smiling and clapping, as they watch. The teacher strides out of the toilet, and enters the principal’s office. She has a slight frown on her forehead, her lips are pursed. She presses on the stop button of the cassette player and the music stops.

When the music stops, the fallen girl stops moving. Then she sits up and looks directly at the camera. The words ‘??’, which means ‘Strange Creature’, flashes on the screen. Her face is morphed. She smiles creepily, and winks.

5. INFLUENCES

Watching the LFO Freak music video immediately brings to mind the Japanese horror film, Ringu, produced by Hideo Nakata. Ringu, which was produced in 1998, has been remade into a Hollywood blockbuster The Ring, in 2003.

In Ringu, Reiko Asakawa is a middle-class young journalist with a divorced husband, Ryuji, and a son, Yoichi. Her niece, Tomoko, was recently found dead with a look of pure shock embedded in her face as if something scared her to death. Upon learning that her niece’s three friends died at the same time, too, and hearing about a disturbing videotape that is said to kill you seven days after watching it, Reiko comes into the possession of that same tape. Reiko and Ryuji race to save their lives and discover what the tape has to do with a tragedy-stricken volcanic island and a very strange little girl named Sadako.

The most apparent evidence of the Japanese influence on Freak is the way the Japanese-styled school uniform that the girls are dressed. They wear high school girl socks, and striped jackets, very typical of young Japanese girls. If one were to watch the music video muted, one would identify the girls as Japanese school girls; but that the director chose to use Cantonese, a Chinese dialect, in the teachers’ speech, tells the audience that the video is set in a conventional Chinese school. The screenshot of flag of China in the playground further affirms the Chinese school setting.

The style of dance of the girls is very interestingly related to Sadako’s image in Ringu. In the part of the dance where suddenly the girls freeze in the V-shaped formation, and their long black hair falls in front of their faces, immediately, the audience would be reminded of Sadako, in Ringu. Perhaps drawing the parallel of the girls with Sadako adds the touch of horror or spookiness to the music video.

Other details such as the dragging of the chair in the dark hallway, and the disturbingly clean floor, all point to the typical Asian horror flick.

Avid watchers of music videos would also find some similarity with the 1997 music video of Aphex Twin Come to Daddy, which was directed by Chris Cunningham, and also produced by Warp Records.

It is easy to see the inspirations of Come to Daddy from Ringu. The antagonist – the creature that crawls out from a television, is very similar to that of Sadako in Ringu, who crawls out of the television screen to get to her victims.

Both videos, Freak and Come to Daddy, use similar techniques to portray the characters. The focusing on a pair of feet to characterize an individual is extensively used in both videos. In Freak, the first pair of feet that appears belongs to the girl who drags the chair into the toilet. Her small shoes tell the audience that she is a young girl, and that the shoes are white school shoes says that she is a school girl. What is most telling are her uncertain footsteps that gives the impression that she is not very strong, and the weight of the chair is not easy for her to bear, but that she continues dragging the chair shows that she is sure and determined in what she is doing. The first image we see of the teacher is that of her black, stately court shoes, in old-fashioned beige stockings, placed neatly parallel to one another. This portrays a strict, conventional woman. In Come to Daddy, a pair of feet in black Mary-Janes gives the impression of young girls skipping along in a tunnel, but unfortunately, the audience will proceed to find the girls with heads of men. Nevertheless, in both films, the feet were used to create an identity for each character.

Also, both films use a dark, bluish-gray tone throughout to create the dark, spooky atmosphere, and use white lights to emphasis and avoid monotony in the videos.


6. GENDERED IMAGES

As much as Freak is a techno music video, there seems to be a message that can be derived from the carefully crafted images. The choice of an all-Chinese-female cast is telling of the women’s liberation movement behind the thumping music.

There are two kinds of female roles portrayed in this music video. The first is represented by the teacher, who is a straight-laced woman who belongs to the pre-women’s liberalization era. The second, the liberal feminist who is breaking out of the societal, cultural norms, is represented by the seemingly good, quiet Chinese girls who morph into head-banging, culture-defying, gender-neutral youngsters.

Let us begin with the teacher who is representative of the subordinated, oppressed woman, of traditional society. Perhaps of all the races in the world, the Chinese are perceived to be more backward in the liberalization of women’s roles, and that is why the producer chose a Chinese woman to represent women’s struggle against society.

On the other hand, the Chinese are also an up-and-coming world power. Chinese women these days are no longer bound to the kitchen, many women now in charge of both the family and their career. But still, the rise in power of women is still far from equality. Although many women hold jobs and respected positions in companies, there is still that glass ceiling in society that prevents women from reaching the top. The liberalization of women is represented by the group of schoolgirls who no longer hold the mindset of the traditional society, but are still trapped in the societal prison of the traditional society.

The stark difference between the traditional woman and the modern woman is clearly shown in the kind of shoes that each is represented by. The teacher is shown wearing shiny, black court shoes, while the young girls are shown wearing sneakers.

Examine also the differences in the way the teacher and students are dressed. The teacher is dressed in stiff, grey working suit, out-of-fashion stockings, and black shiny court shoes. Her hair is neatly bundled up, and she wears no makeup. The girls are wearing their school uniform with a touch of individuality, by adding a jacket, metal chains, or key chains on the pinafore. They are all wearing modern white school shoes, but these are decorated with bright colored socks. Some of the girls have drawings on their clothes, which show their creative side, and how they are trying to break out of the monotony of a bureaucratic system.

In the video, the teacher is portrayed as a timid, resigned woman. In the first image that we see of the teacher, her shoulders are huddled, and her head hangs from her neck, her eyes are lifeless. Even later on in the film when she dashes out of the cubicle, her eyes still do not show emotions. The only glimpse of anger that shows is the slight frown on her forehead.

Compare this with the schoolgirls. Their eyes are focused, and they are free to do as they wish to their bodies, banging their heads, distorting their arms, running and dancing as hard as they want. Even the girls’ dance is more typical of western head-bangers, than one would associate with young Chinese school girls. One would just stop short of saying that these girls were behaving like boys. This is illustrative of the modern woman who is not subject to social, cultural judgments. In one of the most significant part of the dance where the camera shows two girls dancing towards the camera, note that the girls were walking away from the gates of the school. This is significant in that it could symbolize their will to move away from the conventional, bureaucratic society.

However, realize the irony behind the plight of the young girls. As much as they are in control of their bodies and are free in their activities, they are notably bound within the iron gates of the school, and there is no getting out.

Perhaps what the music video represents is most aptly described by the Marta B. Calas and Linda Smircich in ‘From ‘The Woman’s’ Point of View: Feminist Approaches to Organization Studies’. It tells a story of a very impressive female figure, Ellen Randall, who has worked her way up the hierarchical ladder to become a president of a business unit. One may think that Ellen has a bright future ahead of her, but to Ellen, the future doesn’t look so bright because as she looks ahead, she sees a glass ceiling that prevents her from going all the way to the top, in this patriarchic environment.

There are many images that depict this modern woman’s dilemma. The most classic scene in the video would be the scene of the loudspeaker standing high above the gates, and in the backdrop stands tall stylish skyscrapers. The music video teases at the coexistence of the age-old and the modern, and the barriers that prevent us from getting to the other side.

Another representation of this irony is that in one of the key scenes, the girl plays the cassette on the old, obsolete cassette tape recorder, and if one would watch carefully, you can catch a glimpse of modern computers just in the room next to it. And the old school toilet has walls that are covered in young children’s graffiti.

The last message that the video tries to implant is that as much as we try to break out of these barriers, at the end of the day, those who succeed – the schoolgirls, are labeled as ‘freaks’. This is why the girls’ faces are morphed; to brand them as freaks, outcasts of the society. They can no longer be seen as the Chinese girls that the society perceives them to be, but as freaks who are seemingly dressed as Chinese school girls. This is the irony of the feminist movement in today’s modern society; people see what they expect to see and when they do not, they reject your existence in their society.

This shaky attitude of the society towards the female liberalization movement is best illustrated in the dance, where only two girls are dancing are rolling their arms forwards and then awkwardly backwards, representing the forward and backward motion of women in the society. Despite how much we have achieved to date, we have only accomplished so much, and are still held within the barriers of society.

7. CONCLUSION

This very intriguing piece by LFO captivates the audience from the second it begins. Despite that the whole song has only one line ‘This is going to freak you out’, the music video delves into the problems of society and its members. The issue of female liberalization is very interestingly addressed. It shows the struggle between the conventional society and the new, modern woman, and where we are today – trapped between the barriers of society, and the will to break through it. And in the end, those who end up on the other side of the barrier are no longer protected nor embraced by the warmth of the community. This is the irony of the liberal feminist movement.